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Marty Gunther’s Red, Hot ’n Blues Music Reviews - December 2020

By Marty Gunther

Vanessa Collier – Heart on the Line

(Phenix Fire Records)

It only took Vanessa Collier a heartbeat after graduating from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music in 2013 to establish herself as the sweetheart of the blues. And the reigning Blues Music Association sax player of the year proves once again that the sky’s the limit for her with this release, the fourth in an already impressive catalog.

A honey-voiced singer who delivers incendiary runs on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, Vanessa also adds a little resonator guitar here, too, in addition to penning eight of the 11 cuts. It’s a blend of funk, soul, rock and blues aided by guitarist Laura Chavez and Doug Woolverton on trumpet that combines into a faultless package.

Collier reinvents the James Brown classic, “Super Bad,” to open before launching into “What Makes You Beautiful” in a set with no dead weight. Other top cuts include the ballad “I Don’t Want Anything to Change,” “If Only,” “Who’s in Power?,” “Freshly Squozen” and “Heart on the Line.”

Eric Johanson – Below Sea Level

(Nola Blue Records)

The former lead guitarist for both Cyril Neville and Terrance Simien, Louisiana-born Eric Johanson teams with Hill Country superstars Cody and Luther Dickinson for a welcome follow up to Blues in My Blood, the well-received album he recorded with his cousin, Tiffany Pollack, last year.

Delivered in a power-trio format with Eric on six-string and vocals, Cody on drums, Terrence Grayson (Victor Wainwright, Michael Burks) on bass, it follows the same format of his 2017 album, Burn It Down, which was produced by Tab Benoit: an intense assortment of blues, blues-rock and roots delivered atop a steady-driving beat.

If guitar’s your thing, you’ll enjoy this one. Eric’s flashy, but in complete control throughout. Some of the top tunes include “Buried Above Ground,” “Changes the Universe,” “Hammer on the Stone,” “Have Mercy,” “Open Hearted Woman,” “Dose of Forget” and “Riverbend Blues.”

Neil Barnes – Bald Guy with a Lot on His Mind

(Bar-B-Q Sound Recordings BBQSR 2020)

Bay Area harmonica player Neil Barnes doesn’t release albums under his own name often, but when he does, blues fans are in for a treat. This is his first release in six years, and it’s a star-studded mix of West Coast blues, gospel and more.

Produced by both Kid Andersen and Big Jon Atkinson who both contribute their talent on guitar, Barnes is backed by vocalists Earl Thomas, Lady Bianca, Lauren Halliwell and Kyle Jester, a trio of keyboard players, Terry Hanck guitarist Johnny Soubrand and others.

A silky smooth set, Bald Guy opens with the funky, swinging original “Going to Greaseland (aka Cruisin’ Down Crystal Ridge),” followed by an unhurried cover of Dinah Washington’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore.” Other standout cuts include “Rough Side of the Mountain,” “Sugar Mamma,” “Placerville Gold” and “Along Came the Blues.”

Andy Watts – Supergroove

(VizzTone Label Group VT-BOOGA-02)

Recognized as Israel’s ambassador of the blues, guitarist Andy Watts has made a name for himself by serving as host and teaming with American artists to deliver some of the smokin’est blues ever played in the Middle East, and that’s exactly what you get here: a red-hot set in which he lays down rich, single-note runs while fronting a nine-piece orchestra.

Recorded by Kenny Neal for his new imprint, Booga Music, and released in association with Boston-based VizzTone, Watts gets a helping hand from both Joe Louis Walker and Eliza Neals in this set of contemporary electric blues. Watts penned five of the ten tunes. Joe Louis Walker, Eliza Neals, soul singer Roy Young and a pair of talented Israelis, Danny Shoshan and Gadi Altman, handle vocals.

Watts’ six-string talents are on display for the instrumental opener, “Supergroove.” You’ll also want to give a good listen to “Living Hand to Mouth,” “Straight Shooting Woman,” “Burning Deep,” “Blues of the Month Club,” “Don’t Take My Blues Away” and “Supernatural,” the instrumental that closes.

Johnny Iguana – Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!

(Delmark Records DE 864)

Keyboard player Johnny Iguana blends traditional Chicago blues with jazz into a style all his own on this long-awaited debut album, which features guest appearances from the Windy City’s finest: Billy Boy Arnold, Bob Margolin, John Primer, Billy Flynn, Lil’ Ed Williams and more. And like the title suggests, the end result is nothing short of spectacular.

A Philadelphia native with a highly percussive, two-fisted style on the 88s, Johnny pianist spent three years as a member of Junior Wells’ band and has recorded with everyone from Buddy Guy and Gary Clark Jr. to James Cotton, Johnny Winter and members of the Rolling Stones. He’s a founding member of The Claudettes, a unique “garage cabaret” band with three albums to its credit.

Entertaining throughout, some of the high points include a traditional take on Roosevelt Sykes’ “44 Blues” as well as the originals “Hammer and Tickle,” “Land of Precisely Three Dances” and “Hot Dog Woman” plus interesting takes on Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and Coltrane,” Otis Spann’s “Burning Love” and Sonny Boy Williamson I’s “You’re an Old Lady.”

Casey James – If You Don’t Know by Now

(Self-produced CD)

Texas native and former American Idol finalist Casey James established himself as a blues artist to be reckoned with in 2017 with the release of Strip It Down, and cranks things up a notch with this driving, intense album, which shows his continuing growth as both a songwriter and musician.

The 13 tracks – most of which were captured in one take – were recorded in Nashville under the direction of Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge. They’re chockful of soulful vocals and melodic guitar runs in music that’s bluesy throughout with heaping helpings of fiery blues-rock, funk, R&B and a little reggae, too.

There’s a lot to like here, including the blazing opener “Live Life,” “Girl’s Got Something,” “Don’t Break a Heart,” “If You Don’t Know by Now,” “Wish Me Luck,” “Come On Saturday Night,” “A Better Place” and a double-shot of “Faith.”

Jeremiah Johnson – Unemployed Highly Annoyed

(Ruf Records RUF 1285)

Like everyone in the entertainment industry today, St. Louis-based guitarist Jeremiah Johnson’s career has been derailed by COVID-19, but he faces his adversary head-on with this stylish disc, a classy combination of blues and Southern rock that sounds far deeper than the power-trio format he used to produce it.

Johnson puts a positive spin on the difficulties we all face today, with messages dealing with faith and patience as he delivers a bittersweet message. He’s backed by Paul Niehaus IV, who doubles on bass and keys, and percussionist Tony Antonelli, both of whom provide backing vocals.

The originals “Burn Down the Garden” and “Muddy Black Water” set the stage before an excellent cover of Luther Allison’s “Cherry Red Wine.” Jeremiah holds nothing back in “Unemployed Highly Annoyed” and “Different Plan for Me” before offering up a little hope in “Love and Sympathy” and “Rock N Roll for the Soul.” Blues rock at its finest.

Big Harp George – Living in the City

(Blue Mountain Records BMR 04)

San Francisco Bay area chromatic harp player Big Harp George Bisharat waited until age 59 before releasing his first album, Chromaticism, to rave reviews six years ago, and this all-original release – the fourth in his burgeoning catalog – proves once again that he’s a superstar on the instrument.

This dazzling mix of West Coast blues is interspersed with Latin and Middle Eastern overtones and delivers wry commentary and thoughtful observations about life in the modern world, problems with health care and much more. Recorded by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios, George is backed by several of the top musicians, including the gospel trio Sons of the Soul Revivers on backing vocals.

Some of the standout cuts here are: “Build Myself an App,” “Smoking Tires” (about the desire to escape an evil girlfriend), the instrumental “Bayside Bounce,” “Don’t Talk” ( which offers up a little legal advice), “Enrique”(about the deportation of a hard-working émigré), “Pusher in a White Coat” and “Meet Me at the Fence,” a plea for peace and understanding.

A Band Called Sam – Legacy

(Highlander Records)

There’s a whole lot of history with this group. A Band Called Sam is fronted by Sandra Taylor, who rose to prominence in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a member of the all-girl ensembles The Cookies and The Toys. She’s also the daughter of legendary tunesmith Sam “Bluzman” Taylor – the man who whistled on Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” This unit is named in his honor.

A hit maker for Joe Tex, B.T. Express, Sam & Dave, the Beach Boys and others, the senior Taylor penned all of the material here. They’re lovingly reinvented by a lineup that includes his grandson, Lawrence Worrell, the former lead singer in George Clinton’s 420 Funk Mob who also toured in support of Amy Winehouse. This tight, veteran lineup will have you up on the dance floor and eager for more.

Standout tracks include “Voice of the Blues,” “Good To Ya,” “Mother Blues,” “Hole in Your Soul,” “Devil in Your Eyes,” “Nothing in the Streets” and “Funny,” once a major hit for Maxine Brown.

Johnny Nicholas – Mistaken Identity

(Valcour Records VAL-CD-0047)

Johnny Nicholas possesses one of the strongest pedigrees in American blues and roots. A Rhode Island native, his career has included stints with Chicago harp giant Big Walter Horton, Western swing chart-toppers Asleep at the Wheel and Cajun accordion legend Nathan Abshire. He combines all of those influences in this tasty CD, his first new release of new material in four years.

Based out of Frederickburg, Texas, where he’s operated the Hill Top Café – a roadhouse and bed-and-breakfast – for decades, he’s backed here by several of the top musicians out of nearby Austin for a thoroughly laid-back set that’s bluesy and a little country, too.

Take a break from the old one-four-five and give a good listen to “She Stole My Mojo,” “Spark to a Flame,” “Mistaken Identity,” “Guadalupe’s Prayer,” “Tight Pants,” “She Didn’t Think of Me That Way,” “Highway 190” and “River Runs Deep.”

Alastair Greene – The New World Blues

(Whiskey Bayou Records WSK1005)

Based out of Santa Barbara, Calif., Alastair Greene simply smoked in with his award-nominated double album, Live from the 805, in 2018 and he picks up where he left off here, teaming with Tab Benoit in a power-trio format and showing why he’s considered one of the best musicians in the business today.

A former member of the Alan Parsons Project, Alastair traveled to Tab’s home base Houma, La., to record this. A fiery guitarist whose riffs are melodic and shred-free and vocalist with a pleasant, relaxed, slightly behind-the -beat delivery, he plays blues-rock the way it’s meant to be.

Don’t be shy! Crank your stereo up to ten and enjoy “Living Today,” “Lies and Fear,” “When You Don’t Know What to Do,” “No Longer Amused,” “Back at the Poor House,” “Find Your Way Back Home,” “Wontcha Tell Me” and “The New World Blues.”

Nora Jean Wallace – BluesWoman

(Severn Records CD 0079)

Blues lovers have reason to celebrate: Nora Jean Wallace received a half-dozen BMA nominations in the early 2000s when going by the surname Bruso, then quit the stage entirely to care for her ailing mother -- but she’s back with a vengeance after a 15-year break and picking it up right where she left off.

A Chicagoan with deep Delta roots who learned her craft in the ‘70s from Mary Lane, she gets top-shelf backing here from Johnny Moeller (Fabulous Thunderbirds) and Severn honcho David Earl on guitars along the exceptional Steve Guyger and Kim Wilson on harps and Rob Stupka (Luther and Bernard Allison) on drums.

A powerful alto with a full-bodied voice that reminded Koko Taylor of herself at an earlier age, Wallace is all business beginning with “Martell.” Other pleasers include a tasty cover of Syl Johnson’s “I Can’t Stop,” “I’m a Blues Woman,” the original “Look Over Yonder,” “Rag and Bucket,” “I’ve Been Watching You” and “I Don’t Have to Beg You to Love Me.”

Dione Taylor – Spirit in the Water

(Matay Records)

One of the most popular performers North of the Border, Canadian songbird Dione Taylor teams with songwriter/producer Joel Schwartz of Birds of Chicago fame to deliver a richly layered set of contemporary blues, roots and Americana here, interspersing mystical imagery with messages about freedom, heartbreak and perseverance.

An operatically trained preacher’s daughter from Saskatchewan, Taylor’s performed with jazz great Dr. Billy Taylor at The Kennedy Center in Washington and toured internationally for decades. Her gospel background comes through strongly as she delivers inspiration-infused lyrics without sounding preachy.

Among the standout cuts are “Water,” “Where I Belong,” “Down the Bloodline,” “Spirit,” “How Many Times” – a plea for racial harmony, the ballad “Darkness,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “Running.”

Fabrizio Poggi – For You

(Appaloosa Records)

A native of Milan, where he’s considered to be the Italian Ry Cooder, Fabrizio Poggi has a presence on both sides of the Atlantic and serves up a gentle treasure with this album, which blends blues, gospel, folk, jazz and world music to deliver a deep message of hope and love for a troubled world.

A 2018 Grammy finalist for Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train and best known for his work as a Piedmont-style harp player, who doubles on guitar, Poggi’s all class here, primarily delivering well-crafted, beautifully arranged ballads that take listeners on an unhurried journey from Africa to Mississippi, New Orleans and New York while backed by several of the best musicians in Europe.

A jazzy take on the traditional “Keep on Walkin’” opens the action before interesting versions of “If These Wings” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and the uptempo “Don’t Be Worried.” Other pleasers include “For You,” an intimate love song penned by Eric Bibb, and the originals “My Name Is Earth,” “Sweet Jesus” and “It’s Not Too Late.” Bluesy and uplifting throughout.

Various Artists – Crawling Spider: A Tribute to Mike Montgomery Vol. 1

(MJM Productions)

Mike Montgomery was the songwriter/keyboard player for Back Street Crawler, the band led by blues-rock god guitarist Paul Kossoff. This loving tribute – assembled by Montgomery’s son, Marlon, brings together Mike’s former bandmates – bassist Terry Wilson, percussionist Tony Braunagel and keyboard player John “Rabbit” Bundrick – to reinterpret tunes from Crawler and Rough House, Mike’s R&B band. The roster also includes the sensational Teresa James, Robbie Wyckoff and Omar & the Howlers, among others who provide vocals in a lineup that includes members of Firehouse, Humble Pie and more.

This one rocks steadily from the jump, but will definitely please blues lovers, too. Among the highlights are “Pale Fire” and “Stealing My Way,” which are delivered by James, as well as the familiar “All the Girls Are Crazy” and several bonus tracks, which are released for the first time here.

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